Noetic Eruptions

“Injury in general teaches you to appreciate every moment. I’ve had my share of injuries throughout my career. It’s humbling. It gives you perspective. No matter how many times I’ve been hurt, I’ve learned from that injury and come back even more humble.”

~Troy Polamalu

There’s a hostile electric eel wrapped around my spine that I’m slowly, slowly wrestling into submission. It doesn’t let me sleep. It severely restricts my mobility. It sends electric shocks down my right leg, numbing my toes, and creating a constant throb throughout the day. The pain taxes my consciousness. Simple logistics have become complex problems. Easy maneuvers have transformed into difficult projects. Sitting up takes planning. Fetching items from out of reach takes special determination.

Time crawls achingly forward toward recovery.

In July 2014, I misaligned my spine carrying a backpack in Yosemite over and through 50 miles of granite valleys. I was crooked for months. I mistook the problem as skeletal, so I sought chiropractic care. But the problem lay in the soft tissue between the vertebrae. So when the chiropractor torqued me, it only ruined me further.

Then, on September 5th, at 4:16am, a sneeze finished me. That moment of my life was the single most painful experience I’ve ever had. It had me screaming for relief to a god in whom I did not believe. I crawled on elbows and knees to the bathroom and began popping pain pills like candy. So it goes.

In the days and weeks that followed, just lying prone was uncomfortable. Slowly, slowly I trudged through recovery like an asthmatic dragging a cinderblock up a sand dune. It was tortuous, but I did it.
Injury is fire. Sometimes these are minor, cuts, scrapes, bruises ignited briefly, scorching small patches of ground. Othertimes, they are volcanic eruptions. Blankets of lava reduce entire regions of the mind to a bubbling wasteland. As I was then, habits as deeply ingrained as how I sleep, walk, and sit were destroyed. The physical habits I practiced daily were blocked to me by seas of lava. I had no access to the orchards of physical activity that used to sustain me. I was forced to take refuge in alternative forests of the mind. Ones bereft of my usual fare.

I noticed more far-reaching effects as well. The mephitic black cloud of sulphur and ash belching into the sky choked plants of sanguinity and ease, of hope and cheer. I felt bitterness and hostility, derision and pessimism sprout up. I started being contrary, slightly nasty. This pain lead to impatience. Irritability lead to bitter thoughts which cultivated the spiny seeds of scorn.

Was I not so constantly distracted by pain, I would’ve been thinking about the day’s fun. I’d mosey around sweet pastures of optimism, imagining bright futures and grand adventures. But since I was in pain, I dreaded the coming days. My thoughts were occupied by how the days were going to drag out between strained meals, and painful stretches. When I pondered the future’s travels, a crushing hopelessness would flicker from the impossibility of lugging my backpack from place to place. My thoughts were chained to life nursing a crippled spine. Those bleak musings seeped into my emotions, and those emotions seeped into my character. The injury was burning grim, neural connections into my unwilling mind.

I was aware of the transformation, so I was able to thwart it. At the time, though, I let the harsh, twisted trees grow, and swept them clear when I was well again. At the time I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t have the mental strength to bear the burden of that pain and also hold back the wild growth of vicious beliefs. Besides, it felt good. It felt satisfying to maligned the whole world in the throes of my agony. Temporarily that is.

This is an example of how qualities grow in us. Whether by pleasure or pain, the environment influences our thoughts. Those live in the ecosystems of our minds. Given enough time, those thoughts take up permanent residence, and alter their habitat to suit themselves. Lament the pain in a broken back long enough and irritability will send out roots. Bemoan a stressful job long enough, and complaint will underpin your personality. Deplore the status of your social life long enough, and you’ll be consumed by discontent.

Under moderate circumstances our personalities survive the storm. Even when adversity strikes, we can respond positively, exercising patience, being optimistic, bearing with a smile all that affects us. But if such adversity persists, we’ll eventually be ground down. It’s inevitable. Going against the grain is unsustainable. And when that happens we respond as predictably as erosion patterns. Anyone who suffers chronic pain, stress, hardship, woe, or suffering long enough will change in kind. Their thoughts will slowly adapt to the new established norm. The plants will slowly morph to suit the new equilibrium.

Can optimism hold out? Is it like a boat in the ocean, able to stay afloat against the vast immensity of water that surrounds it? Or do our psyches resemble sponges that soak up the composition of the environment around us? I see the later.

Friends and family can preserve us, uplift us against hard times. Sources of joy, esteem, and respite can restore our optimism, our faith, our lightheartedness. They act as supply lines that refill us with happiness. When someone once said, “All you need is love,” perhaps they meant that given any hardship, love can help you endure. When you have a stressful job, a crumbling house, no future, failing health, and crushed dreams, you can still remain content if you have sufficient, counterbalancing love. Maybe.

People who remain in one environment all their lives are blind to its effect on them. Without the contrast of circumstance, their ingrained personalities seem inherent, unavoidable. By the time they’re capable of consciously changing themselves, they’ve settled into their role as a person in whatever lifestyle they find themselves. That role gets strengthened naturally, gradually, irrevocably. At some point it does cement itself.

The last opportunity for change passes silently in an unknown year. People often miss it because they’ve already resigned to who they are. Or they’re stuck in the situation that perpetuates it. Either way, there’s a point where some people’s identity becomes fixed without hope for amendment.

In February 2015, I moved out to the ocean. Something about the ocean aided my recovery. Maybe it was floating, perfectly supported by buoyancy. Maybe it was the mineral composition of the ocean, the right combination of salt water and fish shit. Maybe it was some supernatural nuturing element, some mystic return to the source. Whatever it was, it helped, and I became strong again.

I was eventually able to get on a surfboard. The near-constant arching of the back while surfing strengthened the supporting muscles in my lower back. The paddling got my blood flowing again. And the thrill of riding waves boosted my positivity, a crucial element to healing.

I came back. I overcame. I returned to health. And from my stint in injury I gained a profound appreciation for mobility and health. That appreciation is the gleaming diamond excavated from the wretched experience of prolonged injury. I know now that my back, and my core, power all the activities of my life. I value them beyond measure.

I reinjured my back in Indonesia, so once again I struggled. But for me the bitterness incited by that erupting volcano was a temporary concern. I let it breed its little minions of disdain in my psyche. Those vicious emotions were detestable comforts. But when I healed, I scoured the landscape and hunt them down. I became cheerful again.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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